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Sounding Off

Chris Mayes-Wright
Published February 2008
By Chris Mayes-Wright

Music Technology education: rotten to the core?

Music technology education is a hot topic. Many disagree with it in principle, believing that "you can't learn to be a tape-op in a classroom", whereas others approve of it as a practical subject that gets young people involved in arts and technology. Whatever your opinion, music technology is present — in schools, colleges and higher education — and many of our industry's professionals have academic qualifications in some sort of music technology field.Sounding Off

About The AuthorChris likes to think of himself as some kind of International Man of Mystery. However, he's actually News Editor of Sound On Sound.

Before I go any further, I should state my views: I do not consider any single music technology qualification a gateway or fast-track into a career in the industry. An academic degree is not equal to a job in the 'real' world. Courses are merely platforms, albeit often very stable and well-established ones, from where passionate people, young and old, can start to make their name doing what they enjoy.

It is imperative that students do as much as they can to gather hands-on experience in real-world environments — something that cannot be simulated in the classroom. What I am trying to say is that extra-curricular activity is a must if you want to get anything out of a music tech qualification.

But would the standard of music technology graduates be higher if we improved provision at grass-roots level, particularly in secondary schools?

A few years back, a school hired me to be a 'music technologist'. I thought this was fantastic: my chance to give some keen youngsters a head start. But the school never decided which budget they could pay me from, so I ended up fixing smart boards and changing projector bulbs for the ICT department. I left, frustrated.

To say there isn't enough money would be an understatement, but although it would be naive of me to expect the local education authorities to pour lots of cash into music technology at secondary level, the cash that is available isn't being spent at all well. Take this example: a school was allocated £2000 (from internal and Community Education funds) to spend on recording equipment. So the head of music got in touch with a reputable retailer that routinely deals with educational institutions and asked their advice on how they should spend the money. Whatever happened next was either a severe oversight on the school's part or blatant meat-headedness from the salesperson. The result of the consultation (and the transaction that subsequently followed) was the purchase of a nice Korg hard disk recorder with flightcase. This gave the school a 16-input multitracker — perfect for recording compositions and performances, not to mention the countless school concerts and performing groups. However, the school had no working monitors, no mic stands, cables or headphones, and the only two working mics they possessed were the cheap karaoke type that you can buy in a hardware store. Dreadful.

This is just the start of it — schools need staff with expertise in music technology to deliver the course content and work the equipment, but in many cases (if not most), it simply isn't there. This isn't necessarily the fault of the teachers, but ultimately, they are the ones who must come up with the expertise, in the absence of any budget to employ a technology specialist, as I sadly found out. Unless they're already tech-savvy (and some of them are — respect to you guys), it is unfair to assume that the majority of music teachers will be able to brush up on the latest version of Cubase, or learn about why they might be getting that awful humming sound when they "plug that mixer desk into the tape deck thingy" in their free time. The fact is that they get very little time to spare, what with the variety of arduous school-related tasks. And if they're not the slightest bit interested in mic polar patterns or setting up a vocoder, it's unlikely that they will do research out of hours.

Teachers are challenged by space, too. All too often, I've seen studios being used as instrument cupboards, to which pupils need access throughout the day — leading to vandalism of equipment. Also, the computers used to run audio software are often handed down from other departments.

Having said this, there are some schools that do a sterling job when it comes to music technology. Many teachers and their departments have taken the time to get up to speed with technology and do a great job with the little budget they have. It's a shame they get little recognition. 

Published February 2008